Article by Jason Gates, Q16

I’m Jason Gates, Cohort 16, UMD class of 2011 and the co-founder of Compology.

Jason Gates, Q16, (right) and business partner Ben Chehebar

Compology is building a platform for commercial waste haulers to make it easier and more efficient for them to pick up trash and recyclables by providing them with data about how full their waste containers are. However, that’s far from where we started…

In the summer of 2012 I called a high school classmate and longtime friend, Ben Chehebar, and told him I have a great idea that involved generating energy from a restaurant’s food scraps directly on the restaurant’s property. At the time, Ben and I were both working at Fortune 500 companies in positions that we were less-than-thrilled about. We easily convinced each other that we were onto the next big thing. That August, Compology (see comp-ology, def: the science of composting) was born.

Countless mornings spent knee deep in decomposing food. Hours of customer interviews. Multiple strategic pivots. It was five months of hard work before we finally discovered an industry-wide problem worth solving – a problem that businesses not only had, but were willing to pay us to solve.

Today, waste haulers base their collection schedules on estimates – trucks are sent to pick up containers without knowing if containers are full or not. This is fundamentally inefficient. When equipped with information on container fullness, haulers can plan and execute routes more efficiently – saving money on fuel, labor and maintenance. In addition, we found waste streams such as used cooking oil and scrap metal have high theft rates due to favorable resale values on commodity markets.

Oddly enough, our original composting system incorporated technology to monitor how full the containers were and then sent that data to waste haulers. We decided to focus on that particular feature, which our customers had told us was necessary, but we had previously neglected to recognize the individual value of. With some further software enhancements, we were also able to add the capability to monitor for theft and alert necessary parties when a theft is occurring – think home security, but for commercial trash.

As a startup, growing a business that is environmentally responsible and structured for financial growth is challenging because far too often you have to pay more to “go green.” Ben and I set out to build a company that is rooted in sustainability – from controlling the impact of each step in our product lifecycle to applying green supply chain management practices and even hosting Earth Day parties. We have had control over our company culture and business practices from the start, so we made sure the “green” culture is embedded early, developing creative solutions and budgeting accordingly. You would be surprised how creative problem solving along with the goal of saving money can end up also helping the environment.

On the other hand, the inertia of more established companies makes it significantly harder to make cultural and operational changes, but we designed our products and services to help other businesses be environmental stewards. For example, using Compology to optimize trucking routes helps to reduce the number of miles driven by large trucks. We make it cheaper and easier for haulers to pick up recyclables, which promotes the reuse of goods into new products such as packaging, biofuels, and animal feeds. The data we collect makes it easy for buildings to track waste production for environmental tax credits and for municipalities to measure the effectiveness of waste reduction and recycling programs.

Compology has changed significantly since our original idea, and I credit my experience in the QUEST program with helping us to navigate a series of pivots. There has been a recent craze in the startup community around Eric Ries’ philosophy of The Lean Startup. He advocates that the most successful companies, startups or otherwise, are the ones who can iterate through a build-measure-learn feedback loop the fastest. At the time I didn’t realize it, but each QUEST course was structured like a Lean Startup as defined by Ries. Build an A team, define the problem, develop solutions, get customer feedback, pivot, more customer feedback and deploy the result – all within a semester. Participating in QUEST made it feel natural to design a business strategy through rapid iteration, learning, and deployment. Product traction is a critical metric for early stage companies and the QUEST mentality has helped us get there faster.

Startups can come in many forms, whether you’re an entrepreneur working in your parent’s garage or an intrapreneur looking to innovate within a larger organization. Many principles such as distilling ideas and winning support are the same. For any startup, agility is a strength that must be leveraged. It’s critical to be able to analyze the world around you and adapt quickly – for this, empathy is invaluable. Understanding the perspective of customers, investors, partners, team members, bosses, employees, advisors, regulators, and adversaries builds a more complete picture of how and why those people behave the way they do.

Happy Earth Month. GO TEPRS!

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